Affirmative Action, Law Professors, Law Schools, Minority Issues, Racism

Racists’ T-Shirts On Campus? Only If You Bother To Think About It

My colleagues think that there are going to be some law students who didn’t know that the t-shirts they were wearing were offensive to some of their African-American classmates, and when they find out they’ve caused offense they’re going to be all sorry. I think that people knew exactly what they were doing with their offensive shirts and, at best, you’ll hear some after-the-fact rationalization from students who claim to be just stupid enough to “not even see race.” And of course they’ll be some who don’t even think these t-shirts are offensive at all, because why would evidence that minorities were offended matter to people who don’t care about black people? So this is going to be a really fun post.

You see, it’s a subtle thing. A few students wore t-shirts emblazoned with the image of one of their professors. And it’s not like the professor is David Duke. Hell, he’s employed by a respected law school, so at least some people think the professor isn’t intolerably racist. Just not black people….

First-year students at UCLA School of Law are having some kind of softball competition this weekend. The teams are organized by section. Some of the teams decided to name themselves after professors. I don’t know all of the details because I obviously haven’t been able to contact every student in every UCLA 1L section, but somehow one section decided to take their softball team name from their 1L Property professor (as opposed to any of the other professors in their 1L section), and then one guy decided to make t-shirts featuring the professor’s picture and the team name.

That professor was Richard Sander. Here’s a tastefully redacted picture of a student wearing the “Team Sander” shirt

UPDATE (2:00 p.m.): Tipsters report that the section in question has only different professors for Property. As a commenter explains, “The two teams were the small sections for Property — they normally share the same profs for their other classes, EXCEPT Property.” More on why that might be later, but it seems that if they were going to make t-shirts supporting one professor, Sander was it:

We’ve written about Professor Sander before — e.g., here, here, and here (noting how well-paid he is). Professor Sander is famous for controversial work that he claims shows that black people are ill-served by affirmative-action.

In various articles and in his book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (affiliate link), he argues that black people who get into schools via affirmative-action can’t compete with white students and are ultimately harmed by the program. Interestingly, I don’t think Richard Sander’s work is as racist as some other commentators. I think his conclusions are racist. I think he ignores the black people with marginally lower test scores who do get in, do compete, and do thrive. I think he totally ignores the multi-generational benefit of affirmative-action — if you are the first black person in your family to get into college or law school, your children won’t be, and so they might be the ones to succeed at a statistical level that’s comparable to whites. And I think the conclusion that black under-performance is a reason to exclude black people, as opposed to reforming education to help talented black people succeed, is pretty racist. But again, in a room full of black people discussing Richard Sander’s work, I probably trend towards being a Sander apologist as opposed to a critic.

In any event, if you are a 1L wearing a “Team Sander” t-shirt, you are making a pretty bold statement about how you view your African-American classmates. It’s not as overt as walking around in a pointy hood. But it’s a pretty ballsy statement on a campus full of educated black people. Black law students know that Richard Sander doesn’t think they belong.

That’s not just me saying that. The UCLA Law administration knows what Sander stands for. In fact, and I didn’t know this until I started doing my reporting for this story, UCLA Law doesn’t even place black people in Sander’s freaking class. From a source:

[T]here are no longer black students in his 1L property classes. My 1L experience was awful and after numerous complaints to administration about why it was so problematic to continue placing blacks in his classroom, they finally stopped this year. But every year prior black students have had to suffer through and were told by white administration to “channel our anger/emotions into ‘proving his research wrong’ and performing well” — yet another burden no other white students were faced with. We were also never provided additional academic support for the missed learning opportunities in that environment, such as not feeling comfortable enough to attend his office hours. I can’t think of any black student who wouldn’t feel as if they were contributing to his research by admitting they were not understanding a concept.

Can you imagine this happening in the reverse? Can you imagine a law school saying “We’re pleased to announce that Louis Farrakhan has joined our faculty. Now we know his views about white people and Jews are so offensive that many whites and Jews would not feel comfortable in his class — though we encourage 1L Jews to ‘prove Farrakhan wrong.’ So we’re going to have an entire 1L Property class where we won’t place any white or Jewish people. You’re welcome!”

Of course, it wouldn’t happen that way, because people who believe that law school is bad for Jewish people are no longer allowed to teach in law school. THEY USED TO BE, but we’ve evolved beyond that.

So, you’ve got a professor whose controversial views are available via any “Richard Sander” Google search. You’ve got an administration that has taken the extraordinary step of keeping blacks out of his Property class. And we have one white kid printing out and distributing “Team Sander” t-shirts for a Saturday softball game, with tipsters telling us that about ten students immediately put on those t-shirts and wore them for class on Wednesday. And I’m really supposed to believe that those students didn’t know what they were saying, and who they were saying it to? I’m supposed to believe that those ten kids were so desperate for clothing and/or eager to show section softball spirit that the offense they caused to some of their African-American classmates was innocent or unintentional?

Sorry folks, if the milk’s sour, I’m not the kind of pussy to drink it.

One African-American tipster who was offended by the shirts says that this is the kind of “microaggression” that is prevalent in the UCLA Law community against black students. I cannot speak to the overall environment faced by students of color at UCLA Law. I’ve been out there to speak, and nobody threw bleach on me, so I’ll take my tolerance victories where I can find them.

But I think “microaggression” is exactly the right word for this kind of behavior, be it “Team Sander” t-shirts at UCLA, voting laws in North Carolina, or the entire career of Sarah Palin. The modern racist thrives on statements and actions purposefully designed to offend and isolate blacks and “others,” then retreats behind the plausible deniability of rank ignorance. Just think about how many people think that Palin isn’t a racist, just really really stupid. Think about how many people don’t understand how early voting and state-ID requirements affect minority voting. Think about how many UCLA law students are going to say, “Golly gee, I sure didn’t know that ol’ Professor Sander was so divisive. I thought he was just a Property professor. And I plum didn’t notice that there were NO BLACK PEOPLE IN MY SECTION, but gee whiz that is a little weird, I guess.” Ignorance of the law is no defense, but ignorance of racial animus is increasingly used as an excuse for overt racism. CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS recently (and ignorantly) declared racism to be over in the South, and I’m sure he’s all kinds of “surprised” that the South, immediately, moved to enact more racism.

The other thing about microaggressions is that it’s hard for black people — the victims of these attacks — to find the right response. Writing a 1,500-word blog post about ten kids wearing t-shirts is almost certainly an overreaction. Having an administrative response to the students wearing the t-shirts is an even bigger overreaction, and probably a dangerous one. Hell, if you really think your black classmates are beneath you, you’re probably allowed to wear a t-shirt to that effect. And it’s not like I think UCLA Law should fire Richard Sander (though I can’t fathom how they’re allowing him to teach a required first-year course that they can’t put black people in). Shouldn’t he be teaching electives that whites and blacks can opt into if they want to tangle with him? Controversial scholarship needs to be protected, but surely every 1L deserves to feel like their required professors aren’t out to prove that they’re stupid.

All you can do in response to a microaggression is bitch, and hope that one day people in the majority don’t ignore you just because they’re not personally affected by your struggles. I’m not at all surprised that some black students at UCLA Law were offended by these shirts (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that some black students were not offended; the black community is not a monolith). But were any white students similarly offended? Did any white guy pull one of these kids aside and say, “You know, that shirt really isn’t cool”? Or did they bounce through their day, ignorant or pretending to be ignorant of the offense given?

I’m not sure what the right solution is to this problem. But I do hope that “Team Sander” gets their asses kicked in softball on Saturday. And I hope that for one, fleeting moment, the ten kids who wore “Team Sander” t-shirts feel the kind of isolation and confusion that minority students feel every freaking day. It’s uncomfortable when people judge you and make assumptions about how you think just based on how you happen to look or what you decided to wear. Maybe having a small taste of that will help at least some of these kids never again be so “ignorant” of how their choices affect the larger community.

UPDATE (5:50 p.m.): For the viewpoints of the other ATL editors on this controversy, click here.

Earlier: How Much Does Your Law Professor Make? UCLA Law Edition
Prior ATL coverage of Richard Sander

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